'Time will tell' what Texas could have done to prepare for mass outages

ByTed Oberg and Sarah Rafique via KTRK logo
Thursday, February 18, 2021
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One expert said the state's emergency response to this disaster, which has left millions of Texans wondering when their power will be permanently restored, is to blame.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Texas could have done a better job investing in equipment to keep residents safe during outages like this week's storm that has left millions of residents without power for days, experts say.

Nationwide, it's hard to know how Texas compares to other states when it comes to weatherizing equipment to prepare for severe winter storms that could result in mass outages like we've seen across the region this week.

13 Investigates reached out to neighboring states about regulations for winter storm prep, but have not heard back.

"In each state, it's a little different. We have 50 states with really 50 different regulatory structures," Bruce Bullock, Director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, said. "There's a lot of different standards out there. It's a question whether any of them were necessarily robust enough in this state for this particular event."

One thing that puts ERCOT in a tougher situation than other states is not having access to a larger power grid, where relief could come from some parts of the grid implementing voluntary safety measures while others do not, said Dr. Emily Grubert, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech.

"ERCOT, being so much smaller, it's more likely that the entire grid is going to be subjected to a single extreme event all at one," she said. "To some extent, even if you do have voluntary measures in other places, they probably have access to a lot of other generations that are in different situations and have been designed for different conditions."

The U.S. has six regional entities that oversee power for their regions. During the summer and winter months, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit regulatory authority that oversees the nation's power grid reliability, releases assessments for each region.

In Oklahoma and Louisiana, NERC said Southwest Power Pool, which coordinates energy for those states and 12 others, "developed operational mitigation teams, processes, and procedures that have been put in place to meet real time reliability needs."

Still, this week in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Tuesday that rolling blackouts were "because of extremely cold temperatures over the last several days, the demand for electricity has reached an all-time high."

In Oklahoma, where residents also face blackouts, Gov. Kevin Stitt said "the combination of nearly two weeks of record-breaking low temperatures, heavy snow, and freezing rain has had significant impacts on communities across the state."

In Texas, NERC's report showed "ERCOT anticipates no reliability issues for the upcoming winter season and should have sufficient generation resources available to meet system-wide peak demand."

Calling it a "grid operator's worst nightmare," NERC President and CEO Jim Robb told 13 Investigates on Tuesday the outage in Texas "is really something pretty unexpected from a planning perspective."

Grubert said the state's emergency response to this disaster, which has left millions of Texans wondering when their power will be permanently restored, is to shift blame.

"Outages happen. This is a particularly bad one and is maybe kind of a harbinger of the types of risks that we're likely to see in a lot of grids, depending on how extreme the events kind of unfold into the future," Grubert said. "But I think not really having an ability to communicate to people that outages we're likely, to make sure that everyone knew where warming centers were, to tell people really what they were expected to do and that kind of thing, that part of it actually is a genuine mistake and a genuine misstep."

Still, despite the unprecedented nature of this event, 13 Investigates found there were some warning signs and recommendations following similar disasters that could have been implemented to help this time around.

In the aftermath of a February 2011 winter storm, when ERCOT had to cut power to at least a million Texas homes during a record-breaking cold snap, a report by a federal agency found "ERCOT and the generators within ERCOT could better coordinate generator scheduled outages."

ERCOT CEO William Magness, who, according to the company's latest tax filing, earns more than $800,000 a year, started with ERCOT in 2010. He was there for the last severe weather storm in 2011 and the federal report that suggested more winterization.

On Wednesday, Magness was asked about Gov. Greg Abbot's calls for ERCOT leadership's resignation. He didn't address it directly, instead saying, "I think the assessment of how we did, I think it's something that can be done after we get the power back on."

Still, frustration is growing as millions remain without power, so much so that ERCOT's board and chairman's information was removed from the company's website amid threats.

With millions without water and another 7 million under boil water notices, residents wonder when this will end.

ERCOT on Wednesday would not provide a specific timeline, instead saying restoration depends on the amount of generation to balance demand, which has been a point repeated over the last few days.

Grubert said national standards on how to prepare power grids for severe weather, hot or cold, tends to be based on the conditions those regions expect they might see. In this case, the forecast was off and Grubert isn't so confident that the grid will be able to withstand future events.

"I don't know how likely people thought this kind of freeze might be in Texas, but even still, I would argue that the grid is not at all prepared for the kinds of heat waves that we're likely to see over the next several years," she said. "There are circumstances that you can't prepare for. Time will tell whether this was actually one of them or whether this was truly a really significant screw up."

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